Cleveland's Crumbling Schools Hard to Ignore

Janet Babin- Students at A. J. Rickoff Elementary school are in the final dress rehearsal for their annual winter concert. As they concentrate on hitting the right notes, the children don't seem to notice that their 80-year-old school is falling down around them. Yet above their heads, water-logged tiles dangle from the ceiling, thanks to a leaky roof, and drafty windows let in the sharp winter air. School officials are here to show off these problems, so a newly created commission can figure out what to do about them.

Without interrupting the singing children, Cleveland school administrator Tom Donegan leads members of a new commission assigned to study the infrastructure problem on a tour of three elementary schools. These buildings were built before World War II, and all are in desperate need of repair or replacement.

Tom Donegan- Okay, I'd like to take everyone upstairs to look at the windows, the bathrooms...

JB- The group is pinpointing infrastructure trouble spots. In one classroom, Construction Manager Tim Keaveney explains why there's a row of plastic covered windows.

Tim Keaveney- That's because there's so many air leaks in these windows that without that you'd have snow blowing in when it snows.

JB- Keaveney says at least 70 schools in the District need new windows. Another 43 need new heating systems. Donegan takes the commission downstairs to the antiquated boiler room. A few weeks ago, classes here had to be suspended, because the pipes froze and the boilers failed.

TD- They've been converted from coal to oil to gas -- they're constantly leaking and constantly in need of repair.

JB- Many on the tour were shocked by the poor conditions. Commission member De Jeter says the building looks much worse than when her daughter attended class here a decade ago.

De Jeter- Oh it's despicable - these kids should be out of here today.

JB- This Facilities Commission was created after the roof of Cleveland's East High school gym collapsed, injuring three students and two staff members. April Savage, a nurse with nine children, graduated from the school in 1981; one of her sons still attends class there.

April Savage- I was at work, the flash came across the TV, the first thing that went through my mouth is that my children are in there and my heart skipped a beat.

JB- Savage's son was okay. But without a gymnasium, he'll have to face another obstacle that she says kids at suburban schools don't have to deal with.

AS- It's really scary now that the children don't even have a gym, so they have to leave school, go outside, to another school for physical education.

JB- Ohio officials have been trying to level the disparity between school districts since at least 1997, when the state Supreme Court ruled that the system of funding public schools was unconstitutional. In response, Ohio Governor Bob Taft unveiled a twelve year, $10 billion plan to repair or replace school buildings. But some education advocates say it's not enough. Bill Phillis is with the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding. He says school facilities continue to worsen despite the state's best efforts.

Bill Phillis- Rolling decay could allow buildings to decay faster than new construction can fix them. So we need bold courageous action, the small incremental steps taken by the state just aren't going to do it.

JB- Randy Fisher says the Governor's plan is working. He's Executive Director of the Ohio School Facilities Commission. The panel has approved $1 billion for school construction projects over each of the last two years.

Randy Fisher- So I don't see how anybody could say $1 billion a year is incremental or in some way not addressing the needs of Ohio School facilities.

JB- According to a 1995 report from the General Accounting Office, Ohio ranks nearly last in the country when it comes to school infrastructure problems. But it isn't the only state that's having trouble providing adequate school buildings. The report found that one third of the Nation's schools need extensive repair or replacement. Since that time, President Clinton has sought to increase funding or provide tax credits to improve school infrastructure, but his plans have had only limited success, leaving funding issues largely for state and local officials to figure out.

After the high school roof collapse, Cleveland Mayor Michael White said he wanted to find $1.4 billion to upgrade city's schools.

Michael White- When that ceiling fell in it was a wakeup call. It was a wakeup call for this district, a wakeup call for the parents, administrators, it was really a call to action - that our childen are going to dumps for school buildings.

JB- But for parents like April Savage, the Mayor's plan is too little, too late.

AS- What were you doing in the first place, that it had to take a gym collapsing that could have caused lives for you to pay attention to the fact that you have other schools around here that need attention.

JB- The school facilities commission is expected to release its findings next week. State Education officials must present a new school funding plan to the state's high court by summer.

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